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441 · 10 July 03
Anybody who accuses Jewel of having sold out with 0304 should be regarded with intense skepticism, at least, and is quite likely an asshole trying to pick cheap fights. Jewel already sold out to the theoretical limit with her atrocious Christmas album, after all, and I believe it should also not be a controversial assertion that Spirit involved at least as many artistic compromises in the hopes of commercial reward as 0304 does. Even This Way took on borrowed idioms, and attributing cynicism is often just a function of whether you like the idioms in question. Jewel has gone way out of her way to establish that although she is an acoustic folk-singer by some measure of nature, she will make studio records in any style she feels like. Maybe she does it hoping to sell more, maybe that's just more fun for her. Either way, 0304 is only another step in the non-pattern, and guilty of no real new affront to any meaningful purity. So fuck anyone who writes it off without listening.
Then again, she's standing there on the cover in airbrushed day-glow mesh, waiting for you to. She admits that it's a big, shiny pop record, and you're free to hate big, shiny pop, or wish it were even shinier, or whatever. She doesn't repeat anything she's done before, so if you were hoping for more of something, you'll be disappointed. The lyrics are alternately silly and over-thought, which you could hate individually or in combination. You could hate this record as easily as any other record ever made, as easily as every other record ever made, and no amount of promotional money ever earns anybody the right to question your decision.
I expected to hate it. I dreaded hearing it for the first time, and refused to even sample the advance single lest it scare me out of buying the album at all. I'm on record defending Jewel's radiant potential and twice claiming current greatness for her, and she repays this faith with a Britney-grade throwaway? Ungrateful brat.
And then I actually listened to it. It's not as bad as I feared. And then I listened to it again. It's not even bad in the way I feared. Again. In fact, I'm not sure it's bad at all. Again. Hmm.
Many, many times later, my opinion is finally starting to stabilize. 0304 is fabulous. It may not be my favorite album of the year, but it also may. I hate Britney's corporate anonymity, but Jewel sounds unmistakably like Jewel. I hate hearing pop try to fake r&b moves, but these songs feel playful and open to me, not self-denying or posing. I hear studio-tech touches, but not ones that sound to me like they were forced in for ulterior ends. I hear big pop, but I like big pop. Sometimes. This time.
"Big Pop" could mean a lot of things, of course. Here's what I mean. "Stand" hums along on a slow twitch, Jewel flitting into doubled falsetto in the choruses and bottoming out in syncopated muttering in parts of the verses. "Run 2 U" sounds half like a folk-song remixed for flanger-wipe club reveries, but then Jewel leans into a curve or two and it's clear she's in on the scheme. "Intuition" grafts drum loops to accordions, and comes out somewhere between Tori Amos's harpsichords and A*Teens' glitterballs. "Leave the Lights On" is jittery torch-song slink. The soaring, pulsing "2 Find U" is this style's "Standing Still", and in my universe would have been the triumphant lead single. "Fragile Heart" is everything Lisa Loeb ever dreamed. "Doin' Fine" is the pop song Dar Williams' is terrified she might accidentally make another like. The yearning "2 Become 1" knows where Dolly Parton and Judy Collins and Nina Gordon and the Corrs have been. The groaning "Haunted" has heard Tori in hockey arenas, and Joan Osborne in basements. "Sweet Temptation" mixes some of Maria McKee's theater flourishes with some of Joan and Patty Griffin's wails. "Yes U Can" sounds like Shania Twain trying to remake "Hotel California" and "Funky Town" and a spaghetti western all at once. The toy-twangy "U & Me = Love" might be the most shameless pop novelty song I've heard since "Mickey". The brash, stomping "America" could be a new generation's "(Glad I'm) Not a Kennedy". And "Becoming" is as sinuous and atmospheric as Sarah McLachlan and Delerium, except that the words follow the contours of the music in a way they only can if the same hands guide both.
And if you still doubt, the words and the singing are the details that repeatedly betray the secret consideration behind this bubbly album. As a lyricist, Jewel isn't Sylvia Plath or even Dar or Tori, but she's still Jewel. Listen to the way she turns "A waitress brings me lunch; / We meet but do not touch" into pizzicato in "Stand". "I need you for dark reasons, dear", she admits in "Run 2 U", and then with "Dance for me beneath the street lamp's light" demonstrates what she means. "Leave the Lights On" is as healthy and uncomplicated as love songs come. "2 Find U" picks its way uncertainly through a junkyard of we-will-persevere clichés, but I believe her when she gives up on logical appeals and just says "Look in my eyes, / Kiss my mouth hard". "Fragile Heart" circles around a dinner with his parents. "Let's breathe stardust into our lungs" borrows Emm Gryner's twinkle. Held syllables trail over the ends of instrument phrases in "Sweet Temptation". The spoken verses in "U & Me = Love" dodge beats with a tap-dancer's deft aplomb. "Becoming" has the courage (or is it gall?) to confront itself. "U learned love from Charlie Sheen", she insists in "Intuition", making all those "2"s and "U"s slyly pay off. And I feel "2 Become 1" like I feel "I Melt With You" and "Missing You" and "No One Can".
Style shifts like this ought, I think, to be asked two questions, neither of which has anything to do with selling out. First, has the artist squandered some unique gift? I think this about Patty Griffin confined to a rock band instead of just playing guitar and singing, and about Bob Mould fiddling with sample loops instead of playing guitar. But Jewel's gifts are her voice and her earnestness, and both are as evident here as they were on Pieces of You or This Way. Second, is this new thing usefully distinguished by this particular artist's presence? Quite arguably Patty Griffin's rock-band songs are different than they would be with anybody else singing, so she only fails half my test. Mould's laptop songs might fail both. But Britney couldn't pull off 0304, not as a singer and not even as a figurehead. Jewel can.
I get to the end of this album, and flip back to the front cover again. Jewel spends too much time hanging out with stylists, I've said that more than once before. I don't know what that is she's wearing, and the wind machine was somebody's really dopey idea. I think she's twice as cute when she smiles and you can see her funny teeth. But if I abandoned loves because of bad fashion decisions, I wouldn't have much left. No Big Country (sleeveless flannel shirts), no Marillion (Fish, as Belle succinctly observed, was ugly), no Kate Bush (cf. all early videos), no Game Theory (Scott's hair), no Roxette (multiple costuming offenses), no Tori (suckling pig), no Runrig (mullets). I guess I'd get to keep Low, who are smart enough to not be photographed much. But I don't care how they dress. I don't care how they look. I love music. I love this album of it that Jewel has made. Maybe you should, too. It's your choice, and maybe you should choose love.
Liz Phair: Liz Phair/comeandgetit/"Insanity"
Liz Phair is taking similar shit for her new album, and I don't know whether she's more indignant or elated about all the comparisons between Liz Phair and 0304. She ought to be thrilled, I guess, since she wants to be compared to Jewel and Britney, not Mary Timony and Jen Turrell. Ostensibly the whole point of this album is sales, and there are no bad celebrity parties and no bad publicity.
There are bad albums, though, and Liz Phair is dreadful in exactly the ways 0304 might have been but isn't. Oh, I know I've pointed out before that there is no such thing as an objectively bad album, technically speaking, but this one shakes my faith. It isn't even a sell-out, it's a crassly cynical and inanely myopic attempt to buy in. It fails both my tests with giddy enthusiasm: After listening to this I don't even clearly remember what Liz Phair's unique gifts were; and if this album lacked only vocals and cover art, I don't believe Liz herself would even have picked Liz out of an audition pool for either role. I know who she hopes will buy this album, but I don't know why she thinks they'll want to. It doesn't have qualities so much as it has lines it carefully toes. Its chief claim is that it isn't uncooperatively different (and even this isn't true). But it sounds mangled, and in the pictures Liz looks desperate and bony, and in the reverse of my experience of 0304, I like this one less every time I play it.
And the most horrible irony, to me, is that I loved whitechocolatespaceegg. I thought that was Liz's big pop record, and it made my 1998 top ten list. Whereas I have Lauren Christy's albums in a box somewhere. But Christy sold out successfully a couple years ago, and her writing/production team did half of Avril Lavigne's album, so now Liz Phair is singing Avril Lavigne songs.
And it would be one thing if she were good at it, but she's not. Avril sings Avril songs with enthusiasm, albeit sketchy technique. Liz sings Avril songs like a hapless karaoke performance narrowly salvaged by studio trickery. Liz's vocal style is limp and her voice is thin, which were disarming traits when she was singing ragged songs about ambivalence and candor, and contrasts when she was singing dizzy songs about headaches and strange uncles. But as a rock vixen she might as well be Aimee Mann trying to play Lita Ford. Avril would do these songs better. Lauren Christy would do these songs better herself. Kay Hanley would do them better, Colleen Fitzpatrick would do them better, Shirley Manson would do them better. Hell, Jewel would do these songs better. I don't believe Liz herself would disagree with me. She sings them herself because that's the only way she can be the one paid for them. Ultimately, I don't believe she really wanted to make an album like Avril's, she just wanted to own the rights to one. I guess I wouldn't mind owning the rights to one, either, but I don't want to listen to it.
And if this record were merely mis-executed, even that would be a mercy. But it's worse than that. It's relentless in its mundanity and even periodically self-defeating. The glib affirmation "Extraordinary" makes Vitamin C sound like Dar Williams fronting Superchunk. "Red Light Fever", written with Gary Clark and recorded with Michael Penn, sounds like an Aimee Mann song she's trying to sing like t.A.T.u., which misses the point of both Aimee Mann and t.A.T.u. If "Why Can't I?" turns out to be a hit, Meredith Brooks and Marlo Thomas were both robbed. Penn's instrumentation for "It's Sweet" is sweet and faceted, and Liz actually sings it like a Liz Phair song, but jammed up against the thudding Matrix-formula "Rock Me" it's got no chance. Krish Sharma, who seems to be the Matrix's house drum-tech, smears every cymbal into compression-artifact hiss, which sounds awful but at least distracts from Liz's puerile lyrics about dating college boys. Penn and Wendy Melvoin trade pealing guitars on the measured "Take a Look", and then Liz insists on singing the title phrase eight times in a row as a chorus. The mournful "Little Digger", with Patrick Warren's sad piano, could have been an interlude on Exile or egg, but here just sounds to me like a holding pattern. "Firewalker" has Buddy Judge's guitar and little else. "Favorite" is an extended underwear metaphor built on stolen ABBA hooks. "Love/Hate" is surging and shimmery, but would have been more honest as a "Dream Police" cover. The braying "H.W.C." aims for controversy and overshoots into monumental stupidity (amusingly, the "clean" version of the album in the iTunes store deletes this song entirely, which strikes me as an improvement even if you could ignore the lyrics (which you cannot)).
But if "H.W.C." is the point where I give up on this exercise as insincere and meaningless, it's also a strange announcement of a new beginning. The whooshy "My Bionic Eyes", with Judge and Walt Vincent's snarling guitars, sounds like Liz again. The Aimee-ish Penn/Warren track "Friend of Mine" holds up surprisingly well, and Aimee certainly benefited from her share of studio vocal-thickening in the 'til tuesday years. "Good Love Never Dies" is a stately finale punctured intriguingly by bits of conversation.
And in my extended iPod version of this album, it now segues straight into the comeandgetit bonus EP, which the ROM portion of the disc lets you download from the web. The authentication doesn't work right on the Mac, so I hacked a copy across from my PC using various inelegant techniques. It is worth the effort. More than that: it's the reason to buy the album. "Jeremy Engle", another Penn production, is a league better than any of the Matrix songs before Liz even starts singing, and then turns out to be both her best character portrait and her best love song, and probably my favorite of her songs since "Stratford-on-Guy". "Jeremy needs me / To wipe off his eye, / Some gelatinous thingy / That his brothers are bottling... / Sometimes all you need is a napkin." I'm starting to remember why I thought Liz was special. She wrote about the way people really are, but rarely admit, and it's just as illuminating when the secrets are ordinary and minutely observed as it was on Exile in Guyville when they were sexual and shocking. This, in turn, makes me even less inclined to tolerate the other pandering crap on the album, and whoever decided to leave this song off should be permantently relieved of any control over Liz's music, except that I suspect it was Liz herself, and I don't know that would work.
"Bouncer's Conversation" is musically directionless, but the lyrics are a concussively blunt transcript of a dolt's doltishness, and finally Liz's clipped delivery provides semantic distance again. "Fine Again" sounds like notes for a song to be devised later, but "Hurricane Cindy" is a brilliantly uncluttered folk-song about beauty and envy and objectification and externalized and internalized self-respect. "Shallow Opportunities" is nebulous and repetitive, but short. And in my version the session finally ends with "Insanity", one more forgettable track available exclusively from the iTunes store. If the EP doesn't work on the Mac, and the iTunes store doesn't work on the PC yet, the PC gets the better deal.
And if Liz wants to be Avril, but can't help but still be herself some of the time, there's hope. There's enough raw material here to start making a Liz Phair album already. Rewrite and re-sing "Red Light Fever", "It's Sweet" and "Take a Look". Make "Favorite" smarter, and "Love/Hate" less derivative. "Jeremy Engle" and "Hurricane Cindy" are worth all the Matrix songs put together. That's not an album's worth, yet, but I didn't say it was going to be easy. The money wouldn't solve anything, and there probably won't be enough of it anyway. Liz tried to buy in on credit, and that doesn't often work. She got the album she wanted to own, but it's mortgaged, if not bankrupt. Her grandkids will ask about it, and she'll say that it seemed like a good idea at the time. And then she'll sing them something real.
PS: 200 to 140, elapsed time 51 weeks.